The main draw for the final Premier Mandatory tournament of the season, the China Open in Beijing, began on Saturday with several seeds in action.
“I’m proud of the way I was fighting. And even though she’s serving really well, I was like, very positive. I was never too negative - I was fighting until the last point Jelena Ostapenko
World No 2 Karolina Pliskova found herself dumped in the first round by the 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, despite the Latvian racking up 25 double faults in nearly 2-and-a-half gruelling hours of play in Beijing, 7-5 3-6 7-5.
Ostapenko suffered a dramatic loss of form after her French Open heroics, and now languishes 74th in the world.
Both players struggled badly on their serves, in a wildly unpredictable match.
The Czech Pliskova, 27, had been chasing a fifth title this year.
“I was fighting until the last moment” said Ostapenko.
“I’m proud of the way I was fighting. And even though she’s serving really well, I was like, very positive. I was never too negative – I was fighting until the last point.”
Ostapenko came into the Chinese capital looking to bounce back after a disappointing run in Tashkent, where she had to retire in the first round due to a gastrointestinal illness.
The 22-year old has been struggling to find momentum throughout the Asian Swing and came into Beijing with just one win to her credit after playing Zhengzhou, Seoul and Tashkent.
“I mean, there I had to go out, unfortunately,” Ostapenko said of Tashkent. “I even went to the hospital to check my stomach and everything, because it was pretty bad.
“And then a couple of days I needed to recover, I didn’t practice at all. I wanted to make sure I’m, like, 100% to play this tournament.
“And of course, it’s always a little bit harder the next couple of days.
“After Tashkent, I practiced on Thursday and Friday, it was a little bit tough because I didn’t hit at all, and I didn’t feel that well the days before. But I think I’m feeling good now.”
The former World No 5 found another level against Pliskova on Diamond Court, firing 47 winners and 11 aces on route to the marathon win, her second Top 10 win of the year.
She was almost undone by her own lights-out tennis, her winners and aces were offset by a whopping 53 unforced errors and 25 double faults, but she stayed steady to advance.
It was Ostapenko who emerged victorious in a tightly contested opening set featuring a combined 7 breaks of serve.
Pliskova started with the early break, taking command and consolidating to a 3-1 lead, but the big-hitting Ostapenko stayed on her heels, creating 3 break chances before finally levelling the score at 3-3.
The pair were deadlocked through the next 4 breaks of serve in a row, with Ostapenko having to battle scoreboard pressure as she broke back at 4-4 and 5-5.
Finally, it was Ostapenko who held serve first, at 6-5, and surged ahead to a final break on her third set point to take it 7-5.
Pliskova put her disappointment behind her in the second set, opening again with an early break, 1-0.
She fought off 4 break points in 2 subsequent service games to keep her advantage, and a final break at 6-3 gave her the set to force a decider.
Ostapenko came right back in the final set, breaking at 2-1 before Pliskova found the break back at 3-3.
The next 4 games that followed went with serve, forcing Ostapenko to hold from 5-4 down.
The Latvian passed the test and it was Pliskova who blinked first, giving up her serve at 6-5 as Ostapenko served out the victory.
“I mean it was a great match from my side, I was working really hard to play these kinds of matches,” Ostapenko said.
“Of course, when I saw the draw I was not super happy with the draw, but on the other side I have nothing to lose against Karolina because she’s playing very well this season. I mean, in general she has a great serve.
“So I went on the court and I said to myself, I’m just going to try to enjoy it as much as I can. And yeah, just feel the moment, because I’m playing on Center Court against No.2 in the world. So, it cannot be better.”
Up next, Ostapenko will take on Katerina Siniakova in the second round. The Czech player took down Chinese wildcard Wang Xiyu 6-2 6-2 earlier in the day.
China Open organisers faced questions after 2-time Grand Slam champion Garbiñe Muguruza lost in a match which did not start until nearly 1am and concluded at 2.31am on Sunday morning.
The Spaniard’s conqueror, 20-year old Sofia Kenin, said that she felt ‘mentally drained’ following the late-night first-round encounter in Beijing, which the American won, 6-0 2-6 6-2.
“I obviously started out really well in the first set and I knew that she was going to pick up her game,” the 15th seed told the official WTA website.
“I just felt pretty tired, mentally drained, but I’m happy that I somehow found a way to just fight through it.
“The support from the crowd was great, even at 2.30 in the morning, surprisingly,” added the Moscow-born Kenin.
Her clash with Muguruza, 25, who won the 2016 French Open and Wimbledon a year later, was delayed after all 4 previous matches on the main Diamond Court went to 3 sets.
The No 15 seeded American reeled off the first 6 games and the last 6 games in a row during her clash against the 2015 champion Muguruza.
“It was not easy, and she’s such a tough player to play,” Kenin said. “She played really well and getting the win against her is obviously really good for me and my confidence.”
Kenin seemed unfazed by the late start, or by the two-time Grand Slam winner across the net and took the first set to love in 21 dominant minutes.
Muguruza powered her way to break points in the first game, but that would be the only lead of the set as the American found her range and reeled off 6 games in a row to take the opener.
The Spaniard stormed back in the second, switching up her game plan and stepping into the court with more aggression.
Her powerful groundstrokes dictated play, and playing up the middle effectively took away Kenin’s angles.
She opened with an early break, 1-0, and then extended her lead to 4-1 before serving out to force a decider.
Another early break went Muguruza’s way, and the Spaniard looked ready to run away with the score, 2-0, but Kenin raised her level and regained her first-set form, tracking down everything that came her way and returning with interest.
She reeled off the last 6 games in a row to put an end to the match at 2.31am Beijing time and move into the second round.
“I love China, that’s why [I play so well here]!” Kenin grinned. “Yeah, I feel like I’m having weeks here, I’m really happy. I’m really happy that I’m able to battle through this, I’m literally so drained. But I’m really happy.”
Kenin was the more consistent player throughout the 3 sets, reflected in her 20 winners and 18 unforced errors, serving up 5 aces and winning 71% of points behind her first serve.
On the other side of the net, Muguruza struck 24 winners, the majority of which came during the second set, but was undone by 33 unforced errors and a 51% first serve percentage.
As a result, Kenin broke Muguruza 6 times from 12 opportunities, and Muguruza 3 from 7.
Up next for Kenin, the Moscow-born American will face a Russian opponent in round two as she awaits the winner between Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Veronika Kudermetova.
With 1,000 points on the line in Beijing, all eyes are on three specific players who are shaping up to battle it out for the final qualifying spots: Elina Svitolina, Belinda Bencic, and Kiki Bertens.
Svitolina was the only one of the three to advance to the quarter-final stage in Wuhan, allowing her to move up one spot to the No 8 qualifying position, with Bencic at No 9 and Bertens at No 10.
All three have a chance to overtake Serena Williams, who sits at No 7 on the Leaderboard but is not entered in Beijing.
Svitolina, the 3rd seed, opens against last year’s finalist Anastasija Sevastova in the first round, while Bertens, the 8th seed from Belgium, came from a set a break down in the deciding set to overcome Donna Vekic, 3-6 6-1 7-6(3) to advance, and Bencic, the Swiss 9th seed, dispatched Su-Wei Hsieh from Taiwan, 7-5 6-2.
While the field for the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen is looking clearer after Wuhan, the battle to qualify for the WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai is heating up.
The Zhuhai field will be comprised of the Top 11 players who do not qualify for Shenzhen, plus one wildcard, which means the players sitting between No 18 and No 30 will be jockeying for position for the next 3 weeks.
This includes Sloane Stephens, Alison Riske, Amanda Anisimova, Elise Mertens, Donna Vekic, Dayana Yastremska, Hsieh Su-Wei, and Barbora Strycova, just to name a few.